Sunday, August 15, 2004

Phelps takes gold, celebrates, plans for more

Olympic glory always has short life span

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ATHENS - He slipped off the iPod headphones at the last possible instant, allowing Eminem's "'Till I Collapse" to fully penetrate his psyche. It was, Michael Phelps said, the moment he'd waited for his entire life. "Everything I've always wanted to do," Phelps said. "The day's here."

Then he went out and did the expected. In the 400-meter individual medley, he clobbered the field like a trout swimming against a cabbage.

He won the first of what could be eight gold medals. Mark Spitz won seven, an impossible number, in 1972.

"I was more ready to do this than I've ever been," Phelps said of his world record-breaking show. "One down, six to go." And so began Phelps' quest to be the best swimmer who ever lived.

Michael Phelps, right, celebrates with USA teammate Erik Vendt after winning gold in the 400 meter individual medley. Vendt took the silver.
(AP photo)
Phelps is just 19, and he looks like it: 6 feet 5, gangly, not quite grown into his face. Arms to his knees. (His wingspan is a condor-like 6-7.) Goofy-kid smile. Far-reaching ambition.

Phelps doesn't simply want to be a great swimmer. He wants to take swimming in the United States to greatness.

"I want to change the way America views this sport," Phelps said three years ago.

Phelps wants to do for American swimming what Elvis did for rock 'n' roll. He has a better chance of backstroking to Middle Earth.

He will be a story of these Games. He could be The Story. Ten years from now, Phelps' Q-Rating will be right there with, oh, Christopher Walken.

Walken is in millions of movies. You remember Walken. He's the guy who, when you see him, you say, "Who is that guy?"

Phelps could win gold in the women's 400-meter freestyle relay, all by himself, and he still wouldn't be Willie Mays. Or Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Vince Lombardi or Pete Rose.

He wouldn't be LeBron James or Derek Jeter. To be like Mike, swimming would have to matter as much as basketball. That ain't happening.

Americans see the Summer Games as a quadrennial break from re-runs. We love the pomp and competition. When it's done, we put it back in the drawer for four years.

Remember Matt Biondi?

Was he (A) an Italian movie star; (B) the pizza delivery guy; or (C) a U.S. swimmer who won five gold medals in the 1988 Olympics?

The star doesn't burn brightly long enough. Phelps should be back in 2008. But it's two weeks every four years that we care about. The list of U.S. Olympians whose footprints are permanent begins and ends with Jesse Owens. Muhammad Ali won gold, but he isn't known for it. Mary Lou Retton's place diminishes with each new Kerri Strug.

Spitz is riding Phelps' butterfly wake now. He's an investment adviser in California, if you didn't know. Jenny Thompson has won eight Olympic golds. She has swum in four Olympics. Few will remember her past this week.

The United States isn't Australia, where swimming is huge, world-class athletes are in shorter supply and Ian Thorpe is a god. Swimming is what we do at the YMCA.

There is a feeling building about Phelps. Thorpe, Phelps' chief rival for best human fish alive, expressed it best:

"I like Michael," said Thorpe. "I'm very supportive" of Phelps' quest to catch Spitz. "The warning I have is that anything short of that will be deemed a failure. We should be judging him on his own performance rather than compare him to someone else."

Michael Phelps is a fabulously talented kid, living his dreams. "More dominating than any athlete in the world," according to fellow fish Lenny Krayzelburg. In a sport of specialization, Phelps holds world records in three different strokes.

On the medal stand during the anthem, Phelps removed the wreath from his head. "When you're at a sporting event, you always take your hat off," he said. On Friday night, he fell asleep watching the movie Miracle.

This is Phelps' moment. It began Saturday night. It's poised to last another week. Let's not make it more than it is. As Phelps put it, clutching the gold around his neck: "My goal is right here. I'm perfectly content."



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